IOWA CITY — Criticism of Big Ten football is approaching over-the-top status. Just in driving down from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City Tuesday and flipping around the satellite radio dial, I heard two national shows cutting the league to ribbons for not being very good.
Ohio State is getting penalized, they basically say, because its league schedule is full of the football equivalents of Maryland Eastern Shore and Abilene Christian. The Buckeyes themselves, it was said, would be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Southeastern Conference.
This isn’t suggesting the Big Ten is as good as any league in America. But the gap between it and the SEC or the Pac-12 or anyone else isn’t a canyon. No conference, not even the SEC, is stuffed with greatness this season.
Last Saturday’s showdown between Michigan State and Nebraska was pretty good football. The Cornhuskers turned the ball over too often, but there was plenty of skill on display. Neither will be anyone’s pushover in a bowl.
Yes, Alabama and Florida State are the two most-impressive teams in the nation so far, with Baylor a close third. But the teams they’ve faced on a weekly basis won’t have any “30 On 30” films made about them.
Yes, the SEC has seven straight national-titlists. Yes, it has the best teams top to bottom. But if the conference is as killer as it would have you believe, how have Missouri and Texas A&M stepped in and had so much success so soon?
A&M won 11 games last season. The last previous time it had double-digit wins was 1998. Missouri, an SEC title-contender, never won a Big 12 championship.
The SEC isn’t vastly overrated, and it is a better football league than the Big Ten. But does that make the Big Ten a glorified Mid-American Conference?
Wisconsin (8-2) is ranked 19th in the latest Associated Press Top 25. The Badgers’ losses were 32-30 at current-No. 17 Arizona State — bungled officiating on the final play cost Wisconsin the game — and 31-24 at Ohio State. No, the Badgers haven’t beaten a ranked team.
But does anyone use the eyeball test anymore? Watch Wisconsin and tell me there are 18 better teams in the nation.
Last Saturday, the Badgers destroyed Indiana, 51-3. The Hoosiers are half a team, but their offense had scored at least 28 points in every previous game, including against once-beaten Missouri. It scored a touchdown in every quarter against Michigan State’s superb defense.
Northern Illinois, ranked ahead of the Badgers, beat Iowa 30-27 at Kinnick Stadium. Wisconsin won at Iowa, 28-9.
Northwestern, for all its end-of-game foibles, was a preseason Top 25 team that pushed Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska to the very end of those games. Wisconsin beat the Wildcats, 35-6.
The Badgers are 12th in the nation in total offense, sixth in total defense. But they’re only the 19th-best team overall?
If Bret Bielema had the same caliber of players at Arkansas that he left behind at Wisconsin, the Razorbacks would be a lot better than 0-6 in the SEC.
It is true that the Big Ten’s image is dragging Wisconsin down, polls-wise. Michigan and Penn State aren’t quite what they used to be, Nebraska hasn’t broken through from good to great since it joined the league, and Northwestern has gone from 10 wins last year to a shattered psyche this November.
Did I just make the same argument those who are ripping the Big Ten are making? So what? The league will or won’t make its case in the bowls. That will include Iowa.
“I think we’re a little better,” Hawkeyes Coach Kirk Ferentz said, “so we’re trying to do our part.”